Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

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When it comes to cars, Harriet Tregoning is a bit like a 17-year-old. She likes to give rides, but the driving part is a little dicey.

On a recent Tuesday morning, D.C.’s planning director is trying to figure out how to get from the Georgetown Four Seasons to National Harbor, where she’s scheduled to speak at a conference of real estate types. “I’m still not entirely sure where National Harbor is, relative to the District,” Tregoning says. “It’s funny what you can’t remember.”

I map out a route on my iPhone, then wedge my bike into the back seat of her yellow Mini Cooper. Tregoning, who’s usually a bike commuter, won’t hear of me leaving it behind. But things get confusing once we get on the road. As she navigates through traffic, Tregoning talks to other drivers as if they can hear her. She merges onto the Southwest Freeway hesitantly, like it’s her first time.

“I’m not a great driver, and part of that is, I’ve always had a small car, and I don’t like being next to big things. They make me nervous, so I just speed up,” Tregoning says, gunning the engine to get around a couple of very large trucks. “I kind of like the adrenaline rush that you get when biking. I also kind of like that about driving. “

She relaxes a bit as we head over the 11th Street Bridge. The running commentary continues, but the topic shifts from the surrounding traffic to the surrounding real estate. Eyeing the massive military installation on our right as we speed down I-295, the woman in charge of figuring out how the District’s current growth spurt will shape the city’s built landscape sees opportunity. “I covet Bolling Air Force Base. Don’t you?” she asks. “They have, like, suburban houses out there on the point!”

At National Harbor, Tregoning rolls past a gigantic parking garage. She’s thrilled to find a spot on the street instead, only blocks from the Gaylord National Hotel. When we return two hours later, there’s a meter maid at the dashboard. Tregoning sprints over to her. “I’m right here!” she yells. “Don’t write me a ticket!” Too late. She tosses the ticket in the back seat, exasperated. (Before I set foot in the car, Tregoning preemptively put all driving-related profanities off the record.)

You’ll forgive Tregoning for being a bit rusty. She and her husband only bought a car a couple years ago. The battery’s dead most of the time, she says; they’ve had to jump start it by rolling down the hill. It’d probably be cheaper to rent Zipcars. “It just doesn’t pencil for us to have a car,” she sighs.

From Tregoning’s perspective, though, the vague annoyance of having to deal with a vehicle she barely ever drives is a healthy feeling. And she’s responsible for that feeling: Tregoning has spent the past five years working to make D.C. a place where everything is within walking distance, and where bikes and transit will take you to anything that’s not. Tregoning’s job as the head of the Office of Planning, and her constant advocacy for the philosophy known as smart growth, has made her the embodiment of a shift in the Washingtonian lifestyle that hasn’t yet been unanimously embraced.

Five years is a long time for any political appointee. It’s especially long for one with a professional start like Tregoning, who did major national and state-level work before she was able to start implementing her ideals through city hall. Not many people with a CV the length of hers still have to bike to community meetings—only to face questions from citizens worried that her plans will leave them with nowhere to park their cars.

All the same, when the guy who hired Tregoning was defeated in an election dominated by questions about the changing nature of the city, the new mayor asked her to stay. Though her record would have ensured that plenty of other job offers came her way, she said yes. And why not? It’s easier to get things done in a place with state-like powers and only 13 legislators. “We are the fly-by-our-pants city of doom,” she says, wryly.

Now, more than anyone else in city government—and perhaps more than any planning director in the country—she’s the one shaping how D.C. looks and feels.

Even if she can’t find her way around it behind the wheel.

Smart growthers see themselves as members of a rebel movement, like civil or gay rights. And Tregoning, a petite 51-year-old who favors smocks and brightly colored glasses, wants you to know that she was there before her particular cause, which is to end sprawl and embrace a walkable model of urban life, had its Selma or its Stonewall.

Tregoning enlisted in the smart-growth war in the early 1990s, when she was working as head of the waste policy division at the Environmental Protection Agency, where she’d started right out of college in 1981. That was where she met Geoff Anderson, the man she’d marry 15 years later and who today runs Smart Growth America, the cause’s national advocate.

“So, we sort of started the smart growth movement together,” Tregoning says. Having read through 20 years’ worth of news coverage, I tell her it almost seems like they had. “Not almost,” Tregoning replies, smiling brightly. “Definitely! Deliberately!”

“I had this sort of epiphany, that at the EPA we’re sort of swabbing the deck of the Titanic,” Tregoning continues. “Worrying about these vanishingly small amounts of pollution, and not paying any attention to land use, which was changing everything.”

Tregoning thought about trying to start the revolution from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but felt the agency was mired in “massive dysfunction.” So she stuck with the EPA, which let her launch a development, community, and environment division, and rethink how the agency could play a proactive role instead of cleaning up spills. “EPA was known as a regulatory agency,” Tregoning explains. “And we weren’t really trying to regulate. If anything, we were trying to get the EPA regulations to back off on the land use practices that would give you a superior environmental outcome.”

But to really change the way America was built, Tregoning would have to win over real estate developers, not just her fellow government servants. And in the mid-1990s, the presidents of the industry’s various organizations weren’t exactly receptive to a Clinton administration bureaucrat. “They were to the right of Attila the Hun,” she says. “They were scary.”

But Jim Chaffin, a developer who’d just become president of the Urban Land Institute, a membership-based research and education organization, seemed promising. In 1997, Tregoning helped ULI plan a little conference in Baltimore to lay out the movement’s central idea: helping people live car-free by mixing retail, restaurants and offices together with housing, all near transit. “They expected 200 people. Five hundred showed up. It was boffo for them,” Tregoning says of ULI. “They were off to the races.”

So was Tregoning. From her new post at EPA, Tregoning convened the Smart Growth Network of private, public, and government groups that drew up ten principles for the fledgling movement to build “equity in the brand.” She even prevented anyone else from service-marking “smart growth.” “So it would be like Kleenex,” Tregoning explains. “Everybody would use it as a term.”

Meanwhile, Tregoning was also chairing the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, which started to normalize the tenets of smart growth across the country—rather like the latter-day Tea Party’s nightmare of a worldwide scheme to concentrate everyone into cities. In 2000, she helped launch Smart Growth America, which ensured the movement’s continuity in a post-Clinton administration America.

“The Cato Institution said we were running a shadow, clandestine organization out of the government,” Tregoning says (scholar Randal O’Toole’s 1999 paper was called “Smart Growth at the Federal Trough: EPA’s Financing of the Anti-Sprawl Movement.”) “But by then it was too late. We were two years up and running. Too many people supported it. And we deliberately went after Republican governors so that this isn’t a partisan issue. This is about land use, this makes sense no matter what perspective you come from.”

Even with George Bush set to take office in 2001, Tregoning wasn’t keen on leaving her federal perch (Anderson took over for her, and found Bush’s first two EPA administrators fairly supportive—evidence that smart growth wasn’t just a liberal plot). But Maryland governor Parris Glendening was entranced by what Tregoning had helped create, and lured her to state government with the promise of being able to review Glendening’s entire $23 billion budget, line by line, and toss or change every item that advanced sprawl. When the University of Maryland wanted to put a new campus on a dairy farm in the western part of the state, for example, Tregoning decided it made a lot more sense to put it on abandoned lots in downtown Hagerstown. That decision revitalized a sagging city—with no new highways necessary.

“I said this to the cabinet, and they all look at me, and they look at Harriet, and I don’t think they realized how tough she was,” Glendening says. “The most amazing part about that is that she did that without creating enemies.”

KINDS OF WALKING Utilitarian Promenading Strolling Rambling Special Events
D.C.’s planners try to encourage development that promotes pedestrian life. But all walking isn’t the same. Here, Harriet Tregoning’s taxonomy of foot propulsion: Walking to get someplace to accomplish a task. Walking up and down, say, 18th Street in Adams Morgan to check out future prospects and let them check you out. Often happens at night. Walking socially, maybe just to stretch your legs, directionally but not in a hurry. Walking aimessly, setting your course as interesting sights arise. The stop-and-go of festivals, parades, rallies, and other gatherings.

One central piece of this success: Tregoning had figured out how to talk about smart growth—as a holistic approach that encompassed health, social issues, real estate development, and the environment—in layman’s terms. “The former heads of planning were wonderful, talented people, but they were not communicators,” says Dru Schmidt-Perkins, director of the environmental advocacy group 1000 Friends of Maryland. “She was just so much more effective at it. It was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t boring, I understand these new connections.’”

When Glendening aged out of the governor’s mansion in 2003, Tregoning decided to take her show on the road, starting a Smart Growth Leadership Institute within Smart Growth America. Glendening himself came close to taking a well-compensated job running a brownfields investment fund for AIG, but Tregoning convinced him to come be the president of her new Institute instead (five years later, he became very grateful).

In her D.C. incarnation, Tregoning is still winning over developers. On her panel at the International Council of Shopping Centers conference in National Harbor, she tells an audience full of real estate professionals that the best way to impress her office, which makes recommendations to the all-powerful Zoning Commission, is to show that they understood the pedestrian, bicycle, and transit flow around them—even if retailers want bigger spaces and more parking for cars.

Afterward, she gets buttonholed by the moderator, Grant Ehat, Principal of the JBG Companies, which has a large portfolio of high-end properties in D.C. and the immediate suburbs. “You know, we’re much more aligned with you than we are with the retailers,” he tells her.

Tregoning, on the spot, proposes that JBG do temporary installations in all the buildings it owns with empty storefronts. “We should talk about this being a program,” she says. “And you know who we should hook up with? The embassies.” Ehat thinks it’s a great idea. They’ll talk later.

Every smart growther has a horror story ofwhat things were like before they found The Way. For Tregoning, it was growing up in the suburbs of St. Louis, Mo., where she lived within walking distance of her school—but still had to drive, since she and it were separated by a highway.

Her latter-day car complex notwithstanding, Tregoning—born Harriet Hiken—got one as soon as she was old enough to drive. Her father had died when she was two years old; her Japanese mother didn’t speak English very well, but still scored a deal. “My mother bought a used Chevette off a Cadillac dealer’s lot by bargaining for eight hours, basically saying that the Chevette devalued every other car just by being on the lot,” Tregoning says. She thought it was a gift, but her mother made her pay back the money when she moved across town to attend Washington University, where she started taking classes before even finishing high school.

Tregoning was that kind of kid—the one that read every book in the local library, did her undergraduate degree in engineering just because she was good at math, and took law school classes for fun after she finished college in 1981 at the age of 20. There, she met Michael Tregoning, whom she married within a year, before leaving St. Louis forever. His banking job took them to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Singapore, and three separate times to Dallas, all while she was working on Superfund policy for the EPA in different regional offices. (They didn’t last. He’s now the chief financial officer of an oil company.)

Tregoning originally moved to Columbia Heights for love, too—into an apartment at 14th Street and Park Road NW, where she only stayed for a few months before buying a place in Capitol Hill. “He was an artist,” she says, by way of explanation. “It wasn’t working out.” She and Anderson traded up in 2005, for a too-big, $1.1 million rowhouse in Adams Morgan. Five years later, they downsized to a condo back in Columbia Heights; she now uses the neighborhood as a shining example of well-planned revitalization every chance she gets.

The smart growth power couple is almost a liveable, walkable caricature: They’re a frequent sight parading their massive Chow Chows around the block. Their place is elegantly appointed, but not flashy. Their book club includes a senior vice president at the U.S. Green Building Council, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, an urban design expert at the National Capital Planning Commission, and the Washington Post’s chief environmental reporter (they read a lot of historical non-fiction, apparently).

Tregoning is a conspicuous commuter. On winter mornings, she’ll stuff her long, gentle curls under a beret, cram a helmet on top, envelop herself in a loose, puffy jacket, hoist on a small black backpack, and hop on her teal green folding bicycle (unless she rides her husband’s orange one), high-heeled wedges and all. The folder—a Brompton—can be thrown into a cab if she needs to get across town quickly, and is a dead giveaway that she’s inside whatever building it’s parked outside of. It’s also the avatar for her sparse Twitter feed.

The couple has an active social life, but Tregoning still feels somehow distant—one friend described her as “opaque,” another as “intense.” She has a way of smiling without actually looking happy. I wonder, riding bikes home with Tregoning after an evening event, whether she’d ever had kids.

“Well…” Tregoning hesitates, before explaining that she’d married Anderson late in life. “Also, I never had any reason to believe I’d do a good job,” she goes on. “I had a pretty fraught relationship with my mom. And if I did the things she did, I’d kill myself. If I had a daughter like me, I’d kill myself.”

Starting with Pierre L’Enfant’s original street map for the nation’s new capitol, and continuing with the McMillan Commission’s blueprint for future development in 1902, planners have played an outsized role in Washington’s development. That’s true of the past few decades, too, as the city began developing around the new Metro—a phenomenon that acquired critical mass during then-Mayor Anthony Williams’ administration, as the population began to grow, more residents moved downtown, and neighborhood commerce sprang to life. Williams interviewed his planning director, Andy Altman, by taking him out to St. Elizabeths, sitting on a bluff overlooking the city, and talking about the future.

Tregoning’s interview with Adrian Fenty was not like that.

Her patron was the anti-planner: His impatience to get things built—fast—didn’t leave much time for strategy. But he did care about having a high-profile cabinet full of big names. By that metric, Tregoning qualified.

“I basically asked him about the role, planning vs. economic development,” Tregoning remembers—like whether Fenty would ever back off on a plan because it wouldn’t make as much money. “And he said all the right things. But I got the feeling he didn’t even know why I was even asking, like what could possibly be the problem.”

In the years that followed, Tregoning says she nearly quit so many times she’s lost count, often during fights that centered around that very question: What’s in someone’s near-term economic interest, and what’s just good planning?

D.C.’s PLANNERS

  • In 1791, Pierre Charles L’Enfant was appointed—by the guy who would eventually become the city’s namesake—to lay out what would become the new nation’s capital. The grid of streets sliced through with radial avenues and a patchwork of square and triangular parks is still with us today.
  • Convened in 1901, the McMillan Commission expanded upon L’Enfant’s plan and removed some of its aberrations. Influenced by the City Beautiful movement that emphasized harmony and grandeur in urban architecture, the commission outlined a comprehensive park system with gardens and fountains, plus a network of parkways and a new railroad station.
  • The National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s 1950 comprehensive plan for the city operated under the assumption that cars would be the predominant mode of transportation in the future. Planners also encouraged federal agencies to locate outside the city, the better to survive an atomic attack. In the late 1950s, the Redevelopment Land Agency leveled and rebuilt 550 acres of Southwest Washington—one of the nation’s largest experiments in “urban renewal.”
  • In 1966, the newly-created Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority approved a 98-mile regional subway system, the routes of which would drive planning and development into the next century.
  • In the early 2000s, Mayor Anthony Williams and his planning director Andy Altman started to professionalize the Office of Planning, harnessing the city’s economic revival to stimulate neglected neighborhoods.
  • The earliest example was Florida Avenue Market, the historic but run-down collection of food wholesalers that developers and then-Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. wanted to demolish to make way for a new office and residential complex. Tregoning insisted on studying the area and putting together a small comprehensive plan, which she credits with bringing in a few other developers and neighboring Gallaudet University. The group Tregoning attracted is instead planning a food-focused concept that will retain much of the historic market.

    “I am not a rubber stamp, and planning has to be meaningful and have integrity, and if people can’t trust the planning office, who can they trust?” Tregoning says.

    In her first four years, Tregoning served as the intermediary between a deaf-eared, development-crazed mayor and community groups that wanted things like stronger historic preservation policies and more affordable housing in new condo projects. Internally, she resisted giving incentives to developments that she believed didn’t need them, like the $2 million that Councilmember Jim Graham secured for a one-story CVS on Georgia Avenue: “‘What are we, Buffalo?’” one former administration official remembers her grumbling. Those were the kinds of fights she tended to lose.

    Most of the time, though, Tregoning tried to pick battles she could win—even if it meant leaving a rich, influential swath of the city untouched. She’d watched as the last planning director, Ellen McCarthy, battled an aggressive, determined band of NIMBYs who killed a plan for more intensive development in upper Northwest. Relative to the wealth of the surrounding neighborhoods, Van Ness and Tenleytown have become some of the worst-planned and least-developed Metro stations in the city, with every new project occasioning yowls of protest.

    Tregoning, for all her missionary zeal about smart growth, hasn’t really yowled back. After green-friendly Mary Cheh was elected councilmember in 2006, the smart growth advocacy group Ward3Vision begged Tregoning to try again with a plan that would make it easier to bring in more residents and better retail. She declined. Other than some peacemaking over the American University campus plan, her office has stayed out of the ward almost entirely.

    “The Office of Planning has ceded planning in Ward 3 to the Committee of 100 types,” says local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Tom Quinn, referring to the venerable advocacy group that has battled development efforts its members deem too dense or too tall. “She’s doing the right thing in most corners of the city. But in Ward 3, for whatever reason, there’s a lack of courage to move forward.”

    In explaining her reasons, Tregoning is frank. “My predecessor lost her job over the Wisconsin Avenue plan, and I wasn’t convinced that there was a constituency for change,” Tregoning says, her voice lilting up in a characteristic questioning tone. “I wanted them to feel a little neglected.”

    But Tregoning’s reticence didn’t win her any friends among the Committee of 100, whose members include the city’s longest-standing historic preservationists, architects, and community activists. They accused her of high handedness in presiding over historic preservation appeals and of imposing her will through an overhaul of the city’s zoning regulations. After Vince Gray defeated Fenty, the group sent a vituperative letter asking that Tregoning and Department of Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein not be reappointed.

    “There may be some residents who applaud the ‘I-know-best’ approach exemplified by Harriet Tregoning, but we think that her style conveys the message that the public is not welcome to intrude on the advancement of an agenda,” sniffed the letter. “We are hopeful that as Mayor you will find the absolutist approach incompatible with bringing the city together.”

    The same fear of urbanism that animated critics when Tregoning was at EPA, it turns out, exists inside the District Line. “The question that some people have is her vision for the city, for higher tighter and denser,” says Committee of 100 president George Clark. “And that might be appropriate for some spots in the city, but as an overall philosophy, that can have issues.”

    In the end, Gray cut Klein, but kept Tregoning.

    Clark may not have realized how much the new mayor was actually on board with Tregoning’s vision. If her interview with Fenty was perfunctory, her interview with Gray had taken years: As D.C. Council Chairman during the Fenty years, Gray’s planning hearings turned into long conversations about the future of the city.

    “He and Harriet had built a relationship,” says Klein, by way of explanation for his ouster. “I hadn’t, really.”

    Which doesn’t mean Tregoning didn’t consider leaving. She says she talked to other states and cities—like Chicago, where Klein became Transportation Commissioner—and ultimately decided to stick with D.C. Several people were even pitching her as the next Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.

    Tregoning says she wasn’t lobbying for the Deputy Mayor spot, but sure doesn’t consider herself inferior to the guy who got it. Email correspondence obtained through a public records request show frequent points of tension between Tregoning and her new boss, Victor Hoskins: He told her to let him know before speaking on the radio and in front of industry groups, and deflected her requests for information about a city-wide community benefits agreement with Walmart. (The chain has been criticized for building suburban-style, car-oriented stores). At one point, Tregoning was informed that redevelopment of St. Elizabeths Hospital’s east campus would be taken out of her portfolio. “What happened to letting Planning do planning?” she wrote to Hoskins. “My staff is very upset and demoralized by this and I have to ask why this document, or others that impact our office would be issued without any input from the affected parties?”

    Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, the D.C. politician most aligned with Tregoning’s agenda, wants to see her office weigh in on everything the city government does—as she did in Maryland under Glendening. “She’s probably not included enough on these things,” Wells says, noting Gray’s desire to lure the Redskins to a site near RFK Stadium as an example. “She’s clearly at times out of the loop when we need smart planning.”

    The biggest clash, however, came over historic preservation. “I am beginning to become gravely concerned by the zealous nature of the historic preservation decisions that I see moving forward in the city right now,” Hoskins wrote last October, offering the campus of St. Elizabeths as an example. He suggested it might be necessary to take the Historic Preservation Office out of Tregoning’s agency—she strongly disagreed, and won.

    In large part, Tregoning has survived because she’s a lot more diplomatic than the fired Fentyites. Among fellow believers, she’s not shy about preaching from the fire-and-brimstone sections of the smart growth gospel: “I think it’s ridiculous for us to be talking about congestion,” she snaps, deriding suburban proposals to widen highways to alleviate traffic. “No new capacity alleviates congestion. I mean, where has it ever happened? I find it unbelievable that that is still the mantra, when it’s never been proven to work.” But that’s not something she’d say at a meeting of one of the regional bodies where she serves alongside suburban highway enthusiasts.

    “I’m always thinking about how to put it so people won’t think I’m being ideological, or I’m not attacking someone,” Tregoning says. “For the change I want, what is the lever? If there are people I need to influence, who do they need to hear it from? Because it’s probably not me. That’s why the developers are so important. I think planners in general do better leading from behind. You know, we’re not elected. This is not the era of the—not that I’d even want to be Robert Moses, but you know what I mean?”

    She trails off at the mention of midcentury New York’s much-maligned master builder, a man known for bulldozing community opposition and amassing power over government’s many levers.

    Moses would never have spoken about leading from behind. But any great city builder might have recognized Tregoning’s inability to stay in her lane—figuratively. The tendency stems comes from the fact that she doesn’t really see them. “I have no idea how other planning directors define their job,” she says. “So I feel like I’m responsible in many ways for our future. The future of the city, as broad as that is.”

    Near the beginning of the Gray administration, when she asked for data like transit ridership and energy usage, people told her it wasn’t her job.

    “I think it is my job,” she says. “Population growth is my job. I don’t want to measure how many permits for PUDs get issued and how many plans get written. The outcomes are positive changes in the city that anybody in the city would understand. And if I’m not having an impact on those things, I’m just not interested in being here.”